Is an SUV camper conversion the ideal DIY camper?
Many people are turning into SUV campers. These campers offer more space than car campers while providing better gas mileage, driveability, and stealth than van campers.
Car camper conversions are great because they are easy to park and get fantastic gas mileage. However, car conversions are small and not very comfortable to sleep in.
Van camper conversions offer a lot of storage space and can be extremely comfortable to camp in. Regrettably, they offer poor gas mileage and can be more difficult to both drive and park. On top of this, the popularity of the van-life scene has made these vehicles less “stealth” than they were in years past.
Want to create your own SUV camper conversion? Here are some tips to help get you started:
Get a Four-Wheel Drive Version
One problem with van camper conversions is that it’s hard to find a four-wheel or all-wheel drive van that doesn’t cost a fortune. In fact, it’s hard to find a four-wheel-drive cargo van at all, and oftentimes, you’ll have to get a custom conversion done to get one.
This isn’t a problem with SUVs. Most modern SUVs come with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive versions. My recommendation is to make sure you get one of these versions.
You may take a hit on gas mileage, but you’ll have a vehicle that is much more capable on backcountry roads. You’ll also be much less likely to get stuck in ice and snow.
If possible, get an SUV that has a valid four-wheel-drive option. This way, you’ll have full traction whenever you want it, and you’ll also have the opportunity to switch to two-wheel drive mode when you don’t.
Switching to two-wheel-drive mode will cut down on fuel consumption, which is always a plus when traveling.
Upgrade Your Tires
If you’re going to be going off-road, you’ll want to upgrade your tires. For all-around performance, consider getting all-terrain tires. These tires have better tread on them, which makes them great for getting in and out of muddy campsites.
For winter travel, consider getting a set of snow tires. These tires work wonderfully in the snow, so you’ll be able to go further without having to worry about getting stuck. Just keep in mind that snow tires do not work well in warmer weather and will not last as long as traditional all-season tires do. For this reason, you’ll want to make sure you remove them once the weather begins to get warm.
If you can’t upgrade your tires right now, consider getting some tools so that you can recover your own vehicle from the mud and snow. Shovels, bags of sand, and vehicle traction devices can all help to get you unstuck.
Upgrade Your Suspension
For those heading out on forest service roads or through the desert areas of the west, you might want to consider upgrading your suspension system. With a large budget, you could buy a high-performance suspension system that makes your ride smoother and gives you the ability to handle bumps and dips in the road much better.
However, you don’t need a large budget to upgrade your suspension system. If you’ve been driving the SUV for a while, you might find that simply switching out your old suspension system for a new one will be all that you need to do to improve your ride quality dramatically. This is something that enthusiastic DIYers can do, but be sure you do your research first. A compressed spring can be extremely dangerous, and you’ll need a spring clamp to remove and replace your springs safely.
Take Out the Back Seats
An SUV might provide a wider and longer area to sleep in, but it doesn’t always offer a lot of headroom. One way to get around this disadvantage is to take the center and rear seats out. Sure, you can fold them down, but you’ll still lose a lot of space due to the seat still being in the vehicle.
Take the seats out and take advantage of the extra room by building storage into the areas you removed them from. On top of the increased space, you’ll also help to reduce the weight of your vehicle as well. This will allow you to bring heavier gear without going over your vehicle’s GVWR. Also, the reduced weight should help to improve your fuel economy as well.
Use An Air Mattress
Some people add traditional mattresses to the back of their SUVs. This provides them with a soft bed that also insulates them from the bottom of the vehicle, as well. The drawback to this is that they lose a lot of space and functionality.
One way to get around this without sacrificing your ability to have a mattress is to use an air mattress instead. An air mattress can be kept in your vehicle at all times and can be blown up and used whenever you need it. It’s also lightweight and can just as easily be taken out of your vehicle when you need to use it elsewhere.
Another advantage of using an air mattress is that you may be able to buy one that is built to fit the back of your vehicle. In this case, you may have to leave the seats in the SUV in place as the mattress will most likely be built to fit over the top of them. Luckily, you’ll save some weight and space with the mattress, so it won’t matter as much that the seats are still in the vehicle.
Consider a Rooftop Tent
Just because you have some additional space in the vehicle for sleeping, doesn’t mean you have to use it for sleeping. Instead, you might want to use the extra space to bring additional camping gear with you. In this case, it is better getting a rooftop tent to sleep in.
An SUV will provide more rooftop space and will support a rooftop tent better than a sedan will. Also, most SUVs come equipped with a roof rack already in place, so you won’t have to worry about adding one on yourself. For the ultimate camping experience, get a rooftop tent that includes an added room. This will give you a space to get changed in before you climb up into bed. It will also give you the opportunity to take off any muddy shoes or wet clothing before you climb up there, as well.
Build a Removable Platform
If you’ve decided to sleep inside the SUV instead of on the roof, consider adding a removable platform. You can build one that goes directly over the folded down seats, or you can build one that takes their place.
Either way, the platform can be built to provide a level sleeping area that is easy to get onto and off of.
Also, consider adding storage bins or sliding drawers into your platform. This will give you additional storage opportunities that are easy to access.
When building the platform, make sure it’s easy to pull in and out of your vehicle. This will give you a lot more flexibility than a platform that is permanently mounted to your vehicle.
With a removable platform, not only will you be able to regain your back seats more quickly, but you’ll also be able to take your platform out at campsites. This can be good for nights when you’d rather sleep in a tent or under the stars than in your vehicle.
Extra Add-ins and Considerations:
Consider Removable Insulation
Insulation is excellent for keeping out the heat and the cold. It’s also great for providing a layer of privacy between you and the outside world.
I’d strongly recommend you add a lot of insulation to your SUV camper.
This being said, make sure that most of the insulation is easy to add and remove. If the insulation you buy for your windows is difficult to put up and take down, you may find that you don’t use it as often as you should.
In other areas, feel free to make the insulation more permanent. You can add insulation as well as soundproofing to your doors and interior vehicle panels, and it will benefit you while camping and even when you’re just driving around.
Make An Outdoor Kitchen
An SUV is easier to move around in than a car, but it won’t provide you with the cooking space that a van would.
Instead of attempting to cram a hot pot or camping stove into the back of your SUV, consider creating an outdoor kitchen instead. You can build this kitchen right into your platform and slide it out when you need it.
Alternatively, you could buy a hitch-mounted carrier and add the kitchen to the hitch instead. With the kitchen outside of your vehicle, you won’t have to worry about waiting for the stove to cool before you put it away.
Also, you won’t have to worry about bugs and rodents trying to get into your vehicle to get to the food that stuck to your kitchen cookware.
Bring A Hygiene Tent
If you can’t fit a place to cook inside of your SUV, you certainly won’t have room to add a bathroom or shower to the inside of your SUV.
Instead, consider bringing along a hygiene tent that you can use. With a hygiene tent, a portable toilet, and a solar shower, you’ll have everything you need.
Why a hygiene tent over a regular tent?
A hygiene tent will have an opening at the bottom so that shower water will run right through it. Also, these tents are designed to be tall in height and narrow in length and width.
This means you’ll have enough space to stand up and shower, but you won’t take up much of your campsite doing so.
Buy A Warm Sleeping Bag
An SUV is too small for a propane heater to operate inside of it safely. Use one of these heaters, and you could end up with carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide poison.
It’s also too small to use a wood stove. With a wood stove, you could end up with the same troubles you would have had with a propane heater, and on top of this, you could end up lighting yourself on fire.
An electric blanket or heater might work in an SUV, but you probably won’t have a large enough battery to power either one of these devices. Also, you could end up causing a fire and getting burned or dying from smoke inhalation.
Get around all of this by simply buying a warm sleeping bag to use. People have been sleeping in sleeping bags inside of tents for years, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding one that is warm enough for the back of your SUV.
Bring a Tent Fan
I’ve seen some people rig up window air conditioners to their SUVs for summer camping, but I really don’t think it’s a good idea. For starters, you’ll probably end up damaging the body of your vehicle.
On top of this, you’ll need to be hooked up to electricity, and you’ll need to have the space required to pack an air conditioning unit.
Luckily there is an alternative that can provide some relief from the hot days of summer. This comes in the form of a tent fan. Tent fans are small, portable, lightweight, and battery-powered.
They also hang easily so you can conveniently mount them from a string hung between your car’s clothing hangers. These tent fans are also cheap so you can buy a few of them and use them whenever you need them.
Get Screens for The Windows
Your tent fans won’t do you much good if your SUV’s windows are all up. Also, with the windows up, you’ll lack ventilation, which can lead to condensation.
For these reasons, you’ll need to roll your windows down when you go camping in your SUV.
Unfortunately, this can lead to problems with bugs, insects, and even animals. Keep them out by adding screens to your vehicle’s windows. Most car manufacturers won’t have specific screens for you to buy, so you’ll most likely have to DIY a set of your own.
Luckily, this isn’t hard, and many people have done it already, so you won’t have any trouble finding a good tutorial on making them.
Get Portable Battery Banks
Many van-lifers pride themselves on their solar setups. They buy several hundred watts worth of solar panels, a charge controller, a pure sine wave inverter and a few batteries for their camper.
This costs them thousands of dollars and takes up a lot of additional space. Amusingly enough, they often do it just so that they can run some lights and a laptop.
Instead of doing all of this, consider buying portable battery banks and battery-powered lighting instead. You can buy battery banks that are specific to your devices like phone chargers or laptop chargers, or you can buy an all-in-one device with an inverter built into it.
The first option will be much cheaper and easier, but the second one will give you a bit more versatility.
Add a Waterproof Mattress Cover to Mattresses
If you’ve decided to skip the air mattress and go with a more traditional mattress, you may have to worry about mold forming on your mattress.
This can form easily inside of a vehicle as you won’t have an easy way to keep condensation and sweat out of the mattress. To get around this, buy a waterproof mattress.
A waterproof mattress will shield your mattress from any water that may have gotten to it. This will keep mold away from your mattress, and if things go awry with your mattress cover, fixing it is as simple as throwing it in the washing machine.
Upgrade Your Vehicle’s Technology
Using an SUV as a camper is much less expensive than buying an RV or even turning a van into a DIY camper. Use the savings to upgrade your vehicle’s technology. You’ll be on the road a lot more with your camper, so consider a better GPS system, a backup camera system, and even a better stereo system.
You may also want to consider adding some range extenders to your SUV, as well. Cellular range extenders can help you make calls and access the Internet, even in remote areas of the country.
This will help keep you safe and connected to the rest of the world while you’re out exploring.
If you’ve packed a TV tuner for your laptop, you may even want to consider adding an antenna to your vehicle. This will help give you access to local news and weather, which could help you avoid trouble along the way.
With a lot of planning and a little hard work, you can easily turn your SUV into a great little camper.
Just start out small and be prepared to make a few changes along the way, and you’ll have the perfect SUV camper in no time!
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Morten is the founder of GoDownsize. He has filmed and interviewed people living in tiny houses and RVs since 2011. He grew up on the coast where his dad took him boating from a young age. He has completely rebuilt two RVs in which he travels with his family for months at the time. Read more about Morten here.